Sarawak and Don’t Look Back

A Report from the Rainforest World Music Festival – July 11-13, 2008

It was hard to grasp even as the plane carrying me further and further from my Southern California home soared high over the Pacific. Here I was, on my way to the Rainforest World Music Festival in Sarawak. Me, a guy who seldom crosses the county line and can count on one hand with fingers to spare the number of times I’ve left North America.

Oh, I knew where Sarawak was located. The maps and globes I gazed at endlessly and the encyclopedias I loved perusing as a kid saw to that. It was those very sorts of activities which planted the seeds of my becoming a world music enthusiast, and made my perceptions of even the most distant places less abstract.

But to actually go to Sarawak? As it happened, the affable Mr. Angel Romero, overseer of World Music Central, was invited to but couldn’t attend this year’s Rainforest World Music Festival. He offered me the chance to go in his place, and I, after a full three seconds’ consideration, accepted. And in dizzying short order after that, I was off. First on a lengthy flight to Taipei, then to Kuala Lumpur, then to the city of Kuching in Sarawak itself and finally by shuttle to Santubong Kuching Resort, a place that had a bit of old colonial British charm and an air of mystery about it.

The natural surroundings were green, lush, hot and humid. I was in a rainforest, all right. And yet I felt very much at home. Because of the strange duality of my not having traveled much and yet engaging in informal study of the world since childhood, I’ve yet to experience culture shock. Even coming to such a distant place, I didn’t feel like a stranger in a strange land. I soon found that English is widely spoken in Sarawak, and it seemed that for everything that was unfamiliar, there was something familiar to tip the balance. (Such became clear even on the plane from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching: The in-flight music listening choices included Koranic chanting along with rock, pop and jazz, but the meal also came with a little Kit Kat bar.)

Soon other members of the press arrived, as did the musicians who were to perform. The evening before the start of the festival, the lot of us were bussed to a welcoming reception presided over by Sarawak’s Minister of Urban Development and Tourism. I did no actual head count, but in this, the festival’s 11th year, invited media numbered well into the triple digits. A melting-pot assemblage we were, a far-flung mixture of skin hues and accents sporting everything from khakis to flowered dresses, dreadlocks to shaved heads, hijabs to baseball caps.

But our numbers were, of course, dwarfed by the many thousands who turned out for the three days of the festival itself. The venue, a footbridge-connected marvel of shops, exhibits, attractions, eateries and hangout spots dubbed the Sarawak Cultural Village, sprawled shady and laid-back in a forest clearing framed by towering, majestic greenery.

There was lots to see and do. The main musical performances were slated for the cooler nighttime hours while the afternoons (following mornings of browsing, buying, sampling or simply basking) featured a variety of musical workshops. These were presided over by various combinations of players and singers from the acts scheduled to play later on the stages and themed around both similarities and contrasts in instrumental and vocal techniques. The results, alone worth the price of admission, were frequently brilliant extemporary globe-spanning mini-concerts, intimate in scope and thrilling in their mixing of cultures, musical ideas and inspired symbiosis.

The evening shows did not disappoint when it came to capping off the delights of the days. Sarawak itself was well represented by Tuku Kame’s mix of traditional sounds with melodic cues from China and Central Asia, the youthful Anak Jati Bisaya Orchestra’s chiming percussion pieces and Senida, whose indigenous instruments, majestic chants and dream-sequence dance moves were spellbinding. Hailing from the peninsular part of Malaysia, Akasha brought an Indian-rooted jazz fusion that got the crowd moving as furiously as the Philippines’ Pinikpikan, a likewise potent *censormode*tail of massed percussion, sharp rhythms and a lead singer who sounded like a hybrid of Janis Joplin, Bjork and some visitor from another planet.

Further Indian sounds, specifically those of the Bengali Baul tradition, arrived via the spirited yearnings and deep-permeating songs of Oikyotaan.

Truly marvelous to see and hear was the impact made by artists hailing from farther and wider. One such was Portugal’s Fadomorse, who jolted the genre suggested by their name out of its melancholy state by adding beats and some healthy brashness. Heard any good Celtic music from Poland lately? Beltaine provided just that with expert flair. The U.K.’s New Rope String Band dazzled and delighted with a blend of deft acoustic musicianship and cleverly broad visual humor, and Mediterranean/Middle Eastern sounds echoed with ethereal beauty through the sultry night air courtesy of gorgeous sets by Greece’s Ross Daly Quartet and Palestine’s Adel Salameh Trio.

Africa got its due through the electrified griot sizzle of Gambian/Guinean band Yakande and the stripped-down Congolese/Tanzanian grooves of Kasai Masai, both in sleekly tight form. Because of reported visa problems that caused Colombia’s Cholo Valderrama to be a no-show, only Sheldon Blackman and the Love Circle from Trinidad and Tobago represented the Western Hemisphere. But their lively combination of jamoo, soca, reggae and gospel provided more than enough good vibes from my side of the planet.

So now the question arises: did my enjoyment of the whole thing stem from the simple fact that I hadn’t previously had the opportunity to go halfway around the world to attend an event like this? I think not. I spoke with many a seasoned (and even jaded) festival attendee, and the great majority shared my enthusiasm. A good time was clearly had by each and every.

And I, lucky person that I am, got to get in on good times beyond the scheduled events, including after-hours jam sessions by the resort pool that lasted until dawn. Still, I managed to get myself up for the late-morning press conferences held with assorted panels of festival performers. All had insight to spare, though the greatest shared viewpoint, both on and off-mike, was the power of music to cross boundaries like no other force. And all agreed that what is presently known for better or worse as world music (a term debated at great length by artists and press alike) is the strongest boundary-crosser of them all.

This was a time of boundary crossing on several levels for me as well, and what I consistently found on the other side was great music, a welcoming atmosphere and a sense of adventure that I could easily get used to. It’s not simply by the default of my not being an experienced festival-goer that I would recommend the Rainforest World Music Festival to anyone with the means to get to Sarawak, it’s the fact that it was a rousing, eye-and-ear-opening journey that left me with a head full of memories to be cherished.

Check out www.rainforestmusic-borneo.com for info on the next fest, which will take place July 10-12, 2009.

(Special thanks to Angel Romero, Benedict Jimbau, Gustino Basuan, Letitia Samuel and all the friendly folk in Sarawak.)

All photos by Tom Orr

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